Ken Knabb, the Situationist International,
and the American Counterculture


The Originality of the American Left and Counterculture

The United States is very different from Europe while at the same time being the quintessence of it. There is nothing surprising about this, since it was constituted from continuous immigrations of European peoples and ideas — peoples and ideas that came to America precisely because they did not fit in in their countries of origin. The United States was formed out of what was unacceptable in Europe. It’s a synthesis of all the excesses of Europe.

This American “extremism” nevertheless has a certain moderate, level-headed quality compared with Europe, where there have traditionally been greater temptations to try to make everyone march to the same beat. E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”) remains the motto of the United States. The American left thus appears both more radical and more “good-natured” than elsewhere.

The workers movement in the USA was also a synthesis of the European workers movements. The main theorists and activists intersected there toward the end of the nineteenth century, following extensive migrations triggered by European repressions or by poverty. It is no accident that May 1, 1886, in Chicago became an international holiday.

There is yet another aspect of the United States that is generally forgotten: It emerged from a revolution that was never crushed. This is quite different from the countries of Europe, which fall into three different groups: those that went through such revolutions earlier but with less firmly established constitutional principles (the Netherlands, Switzerland, Great Britain); those that have experienced cycles of revolutions and counterrevolutions, such as France; and those that have arrived at “democratic regimes” only very belatedly, and often under foreign influence. In this European context, revolution is often seen as the minimal threshold short of which nothing is possible; and reformism is seen as the alternative. The IWW slogan, “Building a new world within the shell of the old,” reflects a more original state of mind.

On the other hand, the United States for a long time gave the impression of being culturally primitive. This is not to say that it lacked great authors, philosophers or artists (Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James), but that its culture retained an element of the wildness of the New World. Concord, the capital of American culture, was a small rural town located not far from neolithic tribes.

American culture, thought, and social criticism are “wild” in comparison to the “urbanity” (in both senses of the term) of those of Europe. Kenneth Rexroth, one of the fathers of the American counterculture and the person who certainly had the greatest influence on Ken Knabb, was a perfect example of this America. He had been in the IWW, he had worked as a farmer and a lumberjack, and yet this exile from all civilization wrote all the more profoundly about the most diverse expressions of world culture.


The Situationist International and the American Counterculture

It is often forgotten that the Situationist International (SI) had its origins in the artistic avant-garde, more or less in the trajectory of the surrealist movement and the COBRA group (derived from the initial letters of Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam). The situationists’ originality consisted in a radical renewal of the relations between art and social struggle. This is what made for its success and, less visibly, also its failure.

Its success? The extent to which some of the SI’s basic positions had long-term consequences, shaking conventional ideas with an implacable logic whose power was at least intuitively evident. Its failure? The fact that these corrosive effects did not notably modify the direction of social struggles.

The relations between culture and the revolutionary workers movement have always been ambiguous. Sometimes culture is seen as submissive to the ruling class and is thus viewed with suspicion; at other times it is seen as a sanctuary, a space sheltered from class divisions. Sometimes artists or intellectuals are suspected of being “class enemies”; at other times they are expected to be “socially engaged” and to put the potential impact of their cultural position to good use, though it is not always clear how their own pursuits could be expected to give rise to such an engagement.

From the very beginning, the SI put itself above and beyond this double impasse. How so? First, by criticizing art as a separate activity, as a “market” of art separated from other aspects of life (other aspects that were themselves being increasingly reduced to market terms). This commodified separation was also becoming increasingly “spectacular,” confining each person in strictly defined roles as producers of the commodity spectacle, or as consumers or clients or spectators of it. Secondly, by producing “situationist” works and theories, i.e. works and theories that were not prisoners of the situations in which they were produced, but that tackled such situations in order to change them.

It is in this latter regard that the SI’s failure is most evident, since very little has actually been changed. But “changed” in what way? To ask this question is to realize that this failure has also been a success: the fact that situationist productions have proved so indigestible that neither the art markets nor the ruling modes of thought have been capable of exploiting them or of completely hiding them.


The Subversive Power of the Counterculture . . .

The SI was a contemporary of the Beat Generation. I don’t claim that these two phenomena were equivalent, or even very similar; but they do at least have in common the fact that they were the two most significant intellectual adventures of the sixties. In many respects the American counterculture was already very antispectacular, without knowing it. It nevertheless ended up creating its own spectacle, a spectacle whose evident global success ultimately served as a significant reinforcement of American imperialism.

It was antispectacular in the sense that it openly saw itself as a critique of the various separations of life, rather than itself being a separate aspect or “market.” It represented a much freer manner of living and thinking. In this respect, as with the SI, the borders between culture and social engagement were blurred, as were the borders between creators and audiences. Unfortunately, the borders were also blurred between changes of life and mere changes of lifestyle.

The American counterculture was also much more of a “popular,” grassroots movement than in Europe, filled with a more vibrant poetry of the everyday than anything in Europe apart from the best folksongs. This was reinforced by the fact that the United States has never had a truly “elite culture,” but only a “spontaneous” culture, on one hand, and an industrialized mass culture on the other.

Genuine French (or European) culture is of course quite different from the illusory images of “elite culture,” mass culture, folklore, or even the odd notion of “mass elitism.” It exists, but it is not identified. Thus, in Europe the SI and other similar movements are very difficult to pigeonhole in museums or within academic categories.

If the student movements of 1968 provided the SI with a certain audience, this encounter was full of misunderstandings. In any case, the SI did not succeed in breaking through the rigid frameworks of militantism or culture, or in overthrowing the pontificate of structuralism, or in undermining the habits of consumerism.

The counterculture in the United States had a far broader and more profound impact, spreading into every aspect of life — ghetto struggles, class relations, the freedom and dignity of minorities, artistic, literary, scientific and technical invention... Even the most conservative American citizens could scarcely deny its stimulating and regenerative effects. It would be equally difficult to deny the fact that it ended up being absorbed into the commodity spectacle.


. . . and Its Unconscious Critique of the Spectacle

In the sixties a wind of freedom and imagination blew across America, particularly on the West Coast. It could be summed up in the eminently concise phrase “Do it!” It is disturbing to realize that this freedom and imagination have ended up being packaged within a spectacular industry that plays an increasingly enormous and strategic role in the global market.

The underground ways of “getting by” engendered alternative lifestyles and economies that have ended up profoundly altering the dominant ones. This is also true to a certain extent even of the development of the personal computer, the Internet, and open-source programming.

Ken Knabb’s Public Secrets is one of the works that best understand and describe this dual process. To be sure, he doesn’t do this like a sociologist or a “specialist.” The social sciences forget that if objective observation is an important factor of knowledge, experience is an even more important one, because in the final analysis experience reveals to us what can and should be observed. Knabb speaks on the basis of his own engaged experiences, however modest they may be.

The American counterculture was antispectacular without knowing it. Knabb knew it. He also wanted it to know it. His first real “action” was rather modest: the distribution of a leaflet at a 1970 public reading by the poet Gary Snyder.

“We don’t need poet-priests” was both the title and the substance of this disruption. In Public Secrets Knabb recounts the event in the most candid detail. It is clear that the author was criticizing himself as much as anyone else, inasmuch as he too had been a fan of Snyder. And that if his critique attained its aim and succeeded in changing anyone, it was first of all himself.

Such remarks may seem ironic. But Knabb is right to stress the fact that one does not really learn something without being personally implicated in it.

This empiricist and subjectivist choice has often been misunderstood, leading certain situs and pro-situs to become rather obnoxious spiritual advisors. This misunderstanding has been further reinforced by the overly simplistic opposition between “life” and “survival” cultivated by the SI, notably in Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life.

All coercive systems offer survival in exchange for subordination. The commodity spectacle, however, hides the brutality of this exchange behind a culture of petty envies and trivial utilitarian needs that no longer have much to do with literal survival.

This results in one of the blind-spots of situationist theories, a blind-spot that tends to reduce the critique of militantism — as activity separated from life — to a sort of hedonistic antimorality that resembles a flip side of traditional morality. This misunderstanding goes back to the foundation of the SI.


Changing Life

The SI was founded in 1957 as an artistic avant-garde. It consisted of painters, architects, filmmakers, etc. From the middle of the sixties on, these origins were played down and it began to appear as an extreme leftist movement only a little more bizarre than other similar movements. Far from trying to hide this ambiguity, it took ironic pride in presenting itself as a vanguard of the working class.

In reality, however, the SI had been born out of a break with surrealism, out of a critique and supersession of surrealism (and of art in general). This critique preceded, and ultimately laid the groundwork for, the situationists’ later critique of “Communist” and “revolutionary” movements and institutions.

We could sum up the SI’s position by slightly modifying Marx’s statement: Artists have only depicted the world, the point now is to change it. In this perspective, the situationists were artists in the same sense that Marx was a philosopher.

There’s no reason to limit ourselves to philosophy and art. Science, too, like many other forms of human endeavor, aims to change the world. This desire for change does not imply ignoring or rejecting philosophy, art, science, etc.; it is simply a matter of criticizing their separation within the commodity spectacle.

Needless to say, one changes nothing by merely ceasing to paint, to film, to think, to work, to investigate, etc. The point, obviously, is that one must act in such a way that such productions and discoveries do not slip into the framework of supply and demand, into the circulation of abstract values that do nothing but quantify submission.

Nor is it even a matter of refusing to buy or sell things that have to pay for themselves, such as the journal in which this article is appearing. Rather, as the situationists themselves did, beginning with their artistic practices, the point is to cultivate the broadest and freest collaborations, to avoid being dispossessed or subordinated to others.

Knabb, belonging to a later generation, was never particularly influenced by the earlier, more strictly artistic content of the SI (just as the latter paid little attention to American culture). His own literary and artistic tastes were at once more “classical” (by his own admission) and less “Eurocentric.” But this question of taste is obviously of no great importance.

If we stop viewing art as a separate activity, what remains of the artistic avant-garde, except a revolutionary vanguard? The artistic preliminary, however, implies a different conception of revolution. What remains of the latter once we have superseded art?


The SI for Dummies

In any case, Knabb cannot be pigeonholed as a follower of the SI or of Kenneth Rexroth, or as a veteran of the American counterculture. As he has always done, he continues to pursue his own way without paying much attention to labels or memberships. Let us simply say that his path has passed through those areas.

This manner of proceeding without striking a pose as a “personality” or presenting himself as a “spokesman,” much less hiding behind an anonymous “collective,” is his most distinctive characteristic. It is also in perfect accord with his positions.

From this results two other distinctive qualities: clarity and simplicity — qualities that distinguish him from the situationists yet at the same time mark him as one of their authentic successors.

Complexity, of course, is not necessarily a vice; but it tends to provoke reactive arguments that are even more complex and obscure. Ultimately, it depends on the competences of those involved in the discussion. It is more difficult to pick apart a simple and clearly expressed idea, assuming that it is sound. And if it has some weak points, that has never killed anyone. Why should one fear well-founded critiques?

Moreover, there are all sorts of ways to fail to understand, and therefore to fail to be understandable. One of those ways is even to present an apparent simplicity. When an ad claims that a product is “easy to use,” this is in most cases a way of saying that you don’t have to understand anything in order to use it — which means that it is in actuality incomprehensible, and thus often unusable. Political, cultural and intellectual advertising are no exceptions to this rule.

This is the main reason that situationist theories were not “simple.” But their complexity was actually much exaggerated. They were never all that difficult to understand, nor therefore to criticize. Criticizing them was in fact one of the conditions for becoming a member of the SI. This is why most would-be critiques of the SI had already been made and answered years in advance, up to and including the final dissolution of the group. This is also why, strictly speaking, there has never been any such thing as “situationism.” The situationists’ practice was sufficiently flexible and dynamic that no doctrine was able to take fixed form during the fifteen years of the SI’s existence; nor even during all the time that has passed since then.

In his most personal style, Ken Knabb is thus both a successor of the SI and very distant from it. To put it more precisely, his most distinctive characteristic — his manner of speaking simply and unpretentiously about the world from his own personal standpoint within it — seems to me paradoxically to also be a sign of a more general change of eras.


Dissolving the Spectacle

Ideas are never totally separable from the experiences and practices of those who articulate them, nor from the manner in which they are articulated and propagated. Ken Knabb is among those who have best understood this and who have succeeded in transitioning most smoothly from one era to another. He has done this without saying much about it, as if the appropriate methods and techniques were obvious.

He knows how to make the best use of the more “personal” resources of computers and the Internet, just as the situationists were past masters in using the more “group-oriented” resources of pamphlets, leaflets and journals. And like them, he knows how to link the content with the appropriate means. All of his writings are online in easily reproducible open-source format and in multiple languages at his “Bureau of Public Secrets” website, along with his translations of the Situationist International and a large portion of the works of Kenneth Rexroth.

Many people assume that the change of eras I am discussing is determined by new communications technologies, or perhaps even more specifically by the new companies that market those technologies. This amounts to forgetting that all these issues were already in play back in the era of photocopying, or even earlier, in the era of mimeographing. Above all, this amounts to ignoring the fact that no technology enables the economy to predict how it can be used or what it can be used for.

When we understand how and for what these new technologies can be used, they no longer present any problem. If it sufficed to obtain expensive equipment or to become an expert in computer programming, this understanding would be more common. Programming languages, personal computers and the Internet are remarkable tools for writing and thinking, enabling each person to be the center of a network in which all the others who link up can in their turn be the center of their own networks, so that each can pursue his or her own path without being hindered by others pursuing their own paths; so that the freedom of each reinforces, rather than limits, the freedom of all. Still, it is necessary (and virtually sufficient) that people know what they want to do with these means!

To speak from my own experience, I have rarely found a more flexible and effective manner of working together than in my exchanges with Ken Knabb, notably regarding translations. Although we live on opposite sides of the globe, our collaboration has been in striking contrast with the boredom and burdensomeness typical of comparable activities in a more professional context.

Again, such a remark may seem trivial. But I mention it intentionally in connection with a certain impression of unrealism that one finds in Knabb’s theories, an unrealism that he scarcely bothers to hide. Because in the final analysis, what is unrealistic about his positions? Only the notion that the current social system could easily and pleasantly be replaced by a new way of organizing human activity.

This impression of “unreality” should not hide this other, more practical aspect: Leaving aside the fact that the mode of organization Knabb proposes is certainly freer and more playful and more worthy of mankind, is it effective and inventive? If it is more effective and more inventive than the coercive and hierarchical structures that blocks the way to it, it may take a while, but it will indeed spread and eventually prevail.

October 2008


English version of Jean-Pierre Depétris’s article Ken Knabb, l’Internationale Situationniste et la contre-culture nord-américaine, which originally appeared in the French journal Gavroche  (October 2008). Translated December 2008 by Ken Knabb in collaboration with the author.

No copyright.

[Italian translation of this text]